Obedience Training

I don’t know about you, but there are days when I’m trying to write and my ego just shoves all good intention out of the way, plunks itself down beside me, and proceeds to make snarky comments while looking over my shoulder and cracking its knuckles. And once it muscles its way in, forget about it leaving anytime soon. The ego, after all, wants everything to be all about the ego, and if you aren’t careful, it’ll move in and start insulting your friends and chattering to you when you’re trying to type and leave crumbs all over your keyboard before it spills its drink on your motherboard and blames you for upsetting its balance.

It would be marvelous if we could just show it the door. Some writers claim to be able to do this, but I’m not one of them. Believe me, I’ve tried. But sometimes learning what doesn’t work is the best way to understand what does, and I’ve grown to understand that the reason why we can’t get rid of our egos is because they are to a writer’s health. The absence of ego is good for monks and saints, but artists are driven to occupy the spaces in between, to translate and make connections between the very light and the dep dark. And in order to do this frequently harrowing and often lonely work, we need as much encouragement as we can get. That’s where the ego comes in. It keeps us afloat when no one else believes in us, it never doubts that we can achieve our biggest goals, and it thinks we’re much smarter/prettier/more talented than we give ourselves credit for. I think I might have just described my mother. Anyway, the unfortunate thing is that leaving the door open to ego can often mean that it will kick it open and pester you with its unquenchable thirst for attention, leaving you distracted, creatively paralyzed, and frustrated.

My ego has been particularly snappy lately. Like all praise-junkies, it always wants more from me, and sees everything I’ve already done as not nearly enough. And even though I know how to work with it, I usually stumble a bit toward the tried-and-true solution. This is to be expected. Even the most sanguine among us gets a little rattled by a bully, until we remember that bullies are created from fear and insecurity, and are managed best when we don’t lose our heads and keep patience and compassion in the forefront of our thoughts, even if we want to just punch someone in the nose.

When it comes to managing my writing, it helps to have a favorite saying. This is not because we are giving ourselves over to clichés, but because of the simply fact that mantras help reestablish equilibrium when all logical thought is scrambling for the exits. My favorite saying is pieced together from an ancient Chinese one: “In order for us to conquer our fear of the dragon, we must first invite him into our home.” Actually, that might be my second favorite saying. I think my favorite saying is a Yiddish one:“To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.” They’re actually not all that different, come to think of it. Both of them encourage perspective. Both of them tell us that our biggest fears might exist mostly in our interpretation of them.

In all honesty, sometimes I need to write these down and stick them on my forehead (metaphorically speaking, of course (maybe)). But the more I repeat them, the quicker I find a way to tame my ego. Recently, I’ve found it useful to think of my ego like a giant St. Bernard puppy that needs to learn how to heel. I don’t know how much work you’ve done training a dog, but getting one to walk just beside and not in front of you at a measured pace can feel a little like something only David Blaine could pull off. But as with anything remarkable, it’s all about the daily work, the attention you pay to the matter in small and consistent ways. You can’t teach a dog or an ego to heel, in other words, by shouting at it. The only thing that works is a dedicated, patient practice of establishing boundaries. Your ego and your dog love you, and are wild to be around you, but you’re going to get into a car accident if you don’t devise some kind of daily strategy to work with its boundless and sometimes frightening energy.

I know you’re too smart to expect to see results overnight, but these things always take longer than they should and set in when you least expect them to. Just know that the ego can be managed, provided you approach it without failing to see how equally essential and dangerous it is. But the practice you undertake to manage it, as is the case with almost all practice, actually enforces its own purpose over time. In other words, the practice itself steadies the ego just as much as what is being practiced. Which is very useful, because even after your ego stops peeing all over everything you own and maybe learns some basic commands, it’ll still require your vigilant and compassionate discipline. But don’t cast it out. Just like all our other qualities, it certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s a wonderful and necessary addition to the party, one you should kiss tenderly on the cheek when it arrives, just before you assign it a designated driver for the way home.

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